I am not from Jackson, nor (even worse) am I from Belhaven, and though I realize that this confession relegates me to something near akin to troglodyte status for those of you who are native to this fair city, before you begin casting aspersions (or something sharper and heavier) let me assure you that I have grown fond of Belhaven and say that Seta Sancton’s The View from Gillespie Place goes a very long way towards explaining to me why those of you who are natives love it profoundly.
Given my primeval ignorance, of course I had to find out who Mrs. Sancton was, and given that I know so few people here, I decided to simply do what I do best and research the matter. This eventually led me to contact Tom Sancton, who among other things is former Paris bureau chief for TIME magazine, professor of journalism at the American University of Paris, Andrew Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Tulane and a jazz clarinetist to boot. I have no doubt that he’s also one of those irritating people who complete the NYTimes crossword every day. In response to my query, Mr. Sancton wrote:
Seta Alexander Sancton (1915-2007) was my mother. She was born in Jackson, on North State Street, into a prominent local family (Whartons on mother’s side, Alexanders on father’s side). Her father was Julian P. Alexander, a graduate of Princeton and Ole Miss law school, and an associate justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court. She graduated from Millsaps College, where she was a member of Chi Omega. She was a close personal friend of Eudora Welty, a neighbor from childhood. (My mother’s family lived first on Gillespie Place, then at 1616 Poplar Blvd; Eudora was on Pinehurst.) Seta married my father, New Orleans journalist and novelist Thomas Sancton, in 1941. They lived mostly in New Orleans and had three children of which I am the youngest. When my mother was in her 70s, she decided to write down some family stories and memories for her children and grandchildren. She started jotting down stories on notepaper, the back of envelopes, whatever she had at hand, adding stick figure illustrations as she went along. The result was the book you have in hand. In the 1990s she recorded readings of some of the stories.
Seta’s View from Gillespie, simply put, is a childhood memoir, the memories of a girl who grew up in Jackson, a city that through her eyes was full of of “sugar and spice and everything nice”; June bugs and fig trees, lavender lantana and magnolia fuscata, braided biscuits, sidewalk parades and Victrolas. “Though Edward VII was no longer on the throne,” Seta writes, “the temper of the times remained Edwardian for our mothers, our grandmothers and for us children.” In The View from Gillespie you’ll find a Jackson where maids took children to Smith Park where they would play on the swings and slides and sit in the miniature Greek pagoda and eat sugar cookies. Home libraries inevitably carried volumes of Dickens, Thackeray, Tennyson and the best-selling works of Zane Gray. Gillespie Place itself was a new subdivision off State Street, and having a mother who was Episcopal and a father who was a Presbyterian presented the occasional social awkwardness. Going to the state fair was a landmark event as was going downtown to eat at the Bon Ton or the Pantaze or the Edwards House.
Yes, Seta wrote this book from a child’s perspective, yet through such eyes you can discern the superficially genteel character of the city of Jackson during the 1920s and yes, of course poverty and oppression were no doubt rife at the time, and other unpleasantries such as war and epidemics are also swept aside to make room for bridge parties and swimming in Livingston Lake, but who among you will find fault with me, an outsider who walks the streets of the city as it is today, for being charmed by this picture of its past?